By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Chinese impressions

Sometimes I think that the more I learn about China, the less I understand. This particularly applies to the plethora of traditional views about everything from feng shui and the powers of various foods, to lucky or unlucky words and the flow of “qi” (energy). The ultra-modern administration building at the university in Xi’an I am now visiting has a big hole, deliberately created in the original design, at about the twentieth floor, apparently for some feng shui-related reason.  China Daily had an op-ed article recently called “Why Officials Are Superstitious.” It mentioned a local official who had changed the name of a local lake because it sounded like the word for “turn down,” and the official was worried it would lead to his being turned down for a promotion. Other officials have accepted bribes after priests told them their chances of being caught were small. And the local newspapers have reported on a billionaire in southern China who is considering 1,000 applicants to be his wife. One step of the winnowing process is to have a feng shui expert look at the faces of the semi-finalists faces to see whether the faces are lucky.

The China Daily op-ed suggested that increasing superstition reflects a lack of other core values in Chinese society today. That, in turn, relates to the other incredibly confusing element of China for an outsider – the simultaneous presence of occasional incantations of traditional Marxist ideology in the context of an incredibly market-oriented and money-making culture.

As I mentioned in passing in my last blog, brand-consciousness in China is huge. At the airport on the way to Xi’an, I saw a family member taking a picture of a traveller posed like a model, with her arms in the air against the billboard, in front of an ad for Tiffany. Many Western brands have been given different names in China, to make them easier to pronounce – L’Oreal is “Oh-lay-ah,” and KFC is “Kun-de-ji.”

I have had a number of conversations with students about what jobs are considered most attractive. It turns out that most students aspire to a job in state-owned companies, which I found truly surprising. (The Chinese economy is still dominated by state-owned giants, such as China Mobile or Baosteel, though most have sold a minority of shares to the public and are stock-exchange listed.) The reason is that salaries and benefits are good, and working hours are modest. I spoke with an employee of a state-owned bank who works on stock initial public offerings.Her daily hours are 9 to 5, with 2 hours for lunch – a schedule that would amaze any young investment banker in America! It is hard to imagine that China will really be able to out-compete the U.S. with this work culture and security-seeking. Students add that it is hard to get these jobs, because most of the jobs go to people with “connections” (guan xi).

I had been surprised when I was in Taiwan last December that the main impression a group of Taiwanese students I met with had about President Obama was that he was very handsome. In China, I have found the same reaction among students. While driving around an upscale neighborhood in Shanghai a few days ago, I saw something called the Obama Entertainment Center.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 25, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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